Crime is Not Just a Criminal Justice Issue
The issue of mental health in the criminal justice system is important because, as Stringer (2019) notes, the US Department of Justice has admitted that nearly 40% of individuals in prison have a history of mental illness. Unfortunately, the criminal justice system does not appear to be focused on addressing the situation in a way that benefits people convicted of crime. The prison industry faces a crossroads with respect to the mental health needs of prisoners: it can either continue forward on its current trajectory, ignoring the obvious mental health needs of inmates, or it can take steps now to address the mental health problem within the criminal justice system. This paper will show why there is a problem and what can be done to address it. It will ultimately explain that the prison industry needs to do a better job of addressing the mental health needs of prisoners because otherwise there is not going to be any rehabilitation or reform.
The Mental Health Problem
There are many theories for why crime occurs. From social bond theory to life course theory, criminologists have sought to examine, explore and understand the factors that cause people to want to commit crimes. However, researchers are now exploring the aspect of mental health and the role it plays in crime. Clearly, this is an issue that needs to be addressed, since nearly half of all people convicted and incarcerated have a history of poor mental health. It makes sense that mental health as a problem in society should go ignored, too, because society is told to think of crime in black-and-white terms, as though there were law-abiding citizens and criminals and nothing gray about the situation at all. Yet, what happens when on analyzes the situation in more context? One sees that people are not always in control of their own selves. One sees that in many cases people are dealing with mental health problems that lead them into behaviors that society condemns and that the criminal justice system says need to be punished with incarceration. The actual root of the problem goes unaddressed.
Criminal justice cannot be effective unless it aligns with social justice and social justice demands that the mental health issues at the root of crime be solved. It can be argued that crime in the US is really a mental health issue rather than a criminal justice issue since nearly half of all crimes committed are related to some form of mental illness experienced by the offenders. The situation is made all the worse because of the fact that, according to Yi, Turney, and Wildeman (2016), “jail and prison inmates have different, perhaps unequal, access to on-site physical and mental health services that may mitigate poor mental health outcomes” (p. 905). There is no real equality in terms of who receives mental health care and who does not. Convicts are being incarcerated instead of treated for their mental health issues, and in those places where mental health services are provided the provisions are incomplete, hasty, and unequally given. Without a consistent, holistic, and complete approach, the criminal justice system is simply putting a band-aid on a serious problem and society accepts the situation as is because it does not have to look at the problem: those who are mentally-ill are imprisoned; some placed in solitary confinement for days, weeks, months and even years (Haney, 2018).
The social justice principles at stake here are respect for all human persons and the need to address inequality in the criminal justice system. Persons with mental health issues are treated with tactics of marginalization and oppression as they are kept locked down in a system that is punitive rather than rehabilitative. From a social justice perspective, prisons are considered a critical instrument of justice. It is, however, important to note that in as far as the health and wellbeing of prisoners is concerned, prisons fail to promote certain societal aspirations on this front. Instead of focusing on the mental health aspects of crime, the system instead focuses on punitive justice. This is partly because of a conflict of interest at the heart of the criminal justice system, which is the fact that a private prison industry profits off the imprisonment of convicts. The labor of these convicts is outsourced to competing companies, which pay pennies on the dollar to inmates who have no choice but to work for them while incarcerated (Pelaez, 2014). There is no incentive on the part of the state to address the mental health needs of inmates, even though there is a high correlation between crime and poor mental health (Evans Cueller, McReynolds & Wasserman, 2006).
What the Data Shows
According to Morgan, Flora, Kroner, Mills, Varghese and Steffan (2013), there is a clear overrepresentation of persons having mental illnesses in the criminal justice system. This assertion appears to advance the very same finding of Vogel, Stephens, and Siebels (2014) as has will be shown later in this paper. Towards this end, the Morgan et al. (2013) point out that the relevance of implementing the most effective interventions to cater for the mental needs of inmates cannot be overstated. Morgan et al. (2013) applied meta-analytic techniques to a total of twenty six empirical studies. In so doing, they came up with a reliable research synthesis that sufficiently evaluated the relevant interventions. It is important to note that the article goes beyond the mere examination of what works and also highlights approaches that have been shown to have minimal chances of success. One should not be surprised to find that solitary confinement is not depicted as a positive solution to mental health for inmates.
The National Conference of State Legislatures – NCSL (2020) shows that the various interventions that have been put in place to minimize the interaction between the criminal justice system and persons having mental health needs has to be fixed. This is more so the case given that as the NCSL observes, “nationally, people experiencing a mental health crisis are more likely to encounter law enforcement than medical assistance.” Obviously, these individuals are in need of mental health care—but the mental health care providers are not the ones patrolling the streets, or prosecuting defendants or giving verdicts in court rooms. The mental health care providers are in silos—operating out of health care facilities, while the people in clear need of mental health care are locked away behind bars. There is no logic to the system at all, unless one looks at the private prison system as a for-profit industry and sees the incarcerated as the new slaves in an unjust system. That is how activist Angela Davis sees it and she has decried the system on numerous occasions. As Lentin (2020) points out, “Angela Davis argues that the ‘prison industrial complex’ uses for-profit companies to disappear problems” (p. 260).
It is important to note that as a bipartisan entity serving the diverse needs of sitting state legislators, NCLS has access to important data and resources on the subject matter. Towards this end, the information presented in their research should…prisons provide mental health counseling and therapy to inmates in an environment that is conducive with mental health therapy. This would ensure that prisons be reconstructed with green spaces and be more focused on providing humane conditions for prisoners—no isolation, garden access, access to animals for the purposes of animal-assisted therapy, and so on.
The police, the courts, and corrections are all really impacted by this issue. Police have to deal with individuals on the streets who are in need of mental health help, but because their job is to enforce the law, all they can do is take people to jail. They are not trained to identify mental health issues or permitted to work with the mental health industry to provide care for individuals committing crimes. What is needed, therefore, is more collaboration between the mental health field and the law enforcement field. That way, more humane and just treatment of all individuals could be obtained. As it is now, a racist system allows for-profit private prisons to benefit from incarcerations. The system puts profits before people, and that has to change.
People of color are especially being prosecuted under the law instead of being diverted into mental health facilities. The corrections industry then takes over and profits from their detention. Criminal justice theories, such as life course theory and social bond theory, could help to explain how it happens that individuals end up caught within the criminal justice system with no way out. However, critical theory could also be used to show how advocates for reform like Angela Davis are correct in putting the blame for this inequity on an elitist system of government that seeks repression rather than justice. Law enforcement can use an approach like community policing to more effectively address social equality; the judiciary can use alternative sentencing to cut down on the number of persons incarcerated who are in need of mental health support; and the corrections industry needs to be state-run, not privatized and profiting from prison labor should be banned. Poverty, racism, religion, and other sociocultural variables are exploited because they are seen as ways to oppress minorities, which falls in line with conflict theory and the idea that there is one group that has power in society and to maintain possession of limited resources it denies power to other groups.
The prison industry needs to do a better job of addressing the mental health needs of prisoners. Currently it treats those who are convicted of crime as though it were merely a black-and-white issue of guilty/not-guilty. The problems lie much deeper than this superficial reading of crime. Crime is not really simply a criminal justice issue; it is also a mental health issue. The reason crime rates are so high in America is that mental health is not being addressed. For a final takeaway, one might consider for example just what the lockdown from COVID-19 is doing to the mental health of people in America. People have lost their jobs, their income and many are relying on food banks for sustenance. Their support networks are breaking down because so many people in their communities are suffering and are thus unable to come to the support of others. People are becoming more and more paranoid about germs and disease even though they are unlikely to actually get sick or experience any symptoms at all from coronavirus. Yet people are getting angry at one another for not wearing masks or for trying to get back to work. This is all putting pressure on people and that pressure is resulting…
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